When Frank and Geneve Kepner of La Jolla sold their six Ballerina Boutique stores in 1984, they invested a chunk of the proceeds in limited-edition fine-art prints.
The couple laid out $50,000 for seven prints, said to be created by Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali. The Kepners' pride and joy was "Enchantment and the Kingdom," a whimsical lithograph bearing Chagall's name in crayon.
Two months later the Kepners' joy turned to anxiety, then anger and fury, after Bernard Sternthal, a Marina del Rey art dealer who visited their beachfront condominium, arched his expert brow and declared the Chagall a "virtually worthless forgery."
Sternthal's claim launched the Kepners on a costly and "ulcerating" three-year struggle to determine the print's authenticity and, thus, its value as an investment.
It also shocked them into an awareness of the multibillion-dollar world trade in fine-art prints that art dealers, police and prosecutors on two continents told The Times seems to be rife with fraud and abuse.
Like legions of other buyers around the world, the Kepners discovered just how aggravating it can be trying to establish if a print is genuine, fake or--as is frequently the case--something in between.
"We went through three years of nervous breakdowns. It was a degrading kind of hell," said Geneve Kepner, who now questions the authenticity of five of her seven prints.
"My husband and I almost got a divorce through it. That's pretty strong, but it's true. Both of us are blaming each other" for not being more cautious with their money.
The Kepners consulted art experts who said that the authenticity of their Chagall--which the seller appraised at $10,500 and sold them for the bargain price of $7,000--is at best dubious. The print is worth only "around $450 to $500," providing the print was genuine and only the signature and numbering was faked, one appraiser wrote.
Bernard Schanz, the art dealer who sold the Kepners "Enchantment and the Kingdom," said that while he believes the Chagall is authentic, he cannot prove its legitimacy.
"It's genuine by every way, shape and form, it is not phony," said Schanz, who picked up the Kepners' hotel bill after they shopped at his now-defunct Masters Inc. Gallery of Fine Arts in Sedona, Ariz.
But Schanz--who now heads Schanz and Associates, a La Jolla concern that sells artworks by Chagall, Dali, Miro and other artists--added that whether a print is authentic is often just a matter of expert opinion.
"Who the heck can tell anymore?" Schanz said in a phone interview. "I've been in this business 28 years and you just don't know. The best thing to be is to be happy with it. This piece was as clean as possible. It had all the necessary papers," he said, explaining that "Enchantment and the Kingdom" came with a certificate of authenticity when he bought it from a Californian whose name he said he cannot recall.
Many novices like the Kepners, lured by advertisements touting limited-edition prints as high-return investments, complain daily to law enforcement and arts organizations about paying big money for artworks that sometimes turn out to be worth less than their frames.
In the United States alone, more than $1-billion worth of bogus Dali lithographs have been sold in the last few years, estimated Michael Stout, the New York attorney for the Spanish surrealist.
Dali, now 82 and infirm, is one of "the big three" artists whose names most frequently engender complaints, art experts said. The others are Joan Miro and Chagall. Prints attributed to Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder also generate many complaints.
Disputes over authenticity of artworks aren't confined to limited-edition prints or novice investors. This spring at least five American museums, from the J. Paul Getty on the Pacific to the Metropolitan in Manhattan, have acknowledged that costly works in their collections are of dubious authenticity or fakes. In the past decade scholars have de-attributed scores of paintings, including many once thought to be Rembrandts but now believed to be the work of students, colleagues or unknowns.
Unlike oil paintings, fine-art prints--such as lithographs, engravings, etchings, woodcuts, and serigraphs--are not one-of-a-kind artworks. They are multiple impressions taken from a stone, plate, silk screen or other medium. They are called limited editions because typically fewer than 200 impressions are made, although a few artists have authorized editions of 1,000 or more.
These limited-edition prints are usually made by craftsmen supervised by the artist, who normally signs and numbers each print.
However, unauthorized extra copies can easily be turned out in volume. For instance, by simply using one print from a limited edition as a master, unscrupulous printers or sellers can re-create a stone, plate or silk screen through various techniques and make 1,000 seemingly genuine copies of a print that was only supposed to be issued in an edition of 150, said Benjamin Horowitz, a La Cienega Boulevard art dealer.